Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Appendix 9
Summary Minutes: Favoring Open Access for Minors

September 24, 1997
7:30-10:00 PM


Explanation of procedures and overall process by Father Tom Shanks (TS)

TS asks how well the paragraph from the handout captures the key question? How should minors be guided in their access to the Internet in public libraries? Is that the key question or is the key question something else?

Asking the question in that way does not make any implication as to whether the guiding should be done by the library, the parents, or some other influencing organization. For this reason, the question asked is correctly posed.

I disagree. It leaves out the heart of the problem, which is the bounds between the protection of children, and the rights of free speech. In other words, how can the library best balance the compelling interests of protecting children and protecting free speech?

I agree, but we must also make explicit who is responsible, or accountable, for the guidance of children in their access to the Internet.

I am uncomfortable using the word "protect"with reference to the library. I am not certain it is the library's job to protect my children.

I also wonder what we mean by the word "guidance."If we mean parental guidance, we need to determine if that is reasonable in all cases.

On the other side of that is pushing the responsibility entirely to the library, relieving parents of their responsibility for what happens with their children and how their children are guided. The library cannot narrowly employ restrictions, because some individuals will consequently be treated wrongly. At the same time, the library must not act weakly and accomplish very little; otherwise they might as well not act at all.

If parents are responsible for guidance in every other part of their children's lives, why not this one?

I also do not like the word "guided"; it seems to propose someone standing over the children doing everything for them, and this is not what the children need. The issue is accessibility. What will the children be allowed to access and are there going to be limits?

How practical is it to assume protection from parents, and, additionally, how practical is it to expect protection from the library?

We should also consider the nature of our society and the changes that are taking place. Moves to protect minors may be, in some sense, moves to protect our own innocence about the depth of change in our own society. Access in the library will become a side issue. We can take a narrow approach and appear safe, but we should rather focus on teaching children necessary moral and critical thinking skills to avoid bad influence from the increasingly available information.

I am in favor of children learning how to use judgement as they access information, and that kind of education is deliverable through the Internet in the library.

TS asks participants to clarify what ages are included in the term "minor."

Below eighteen.

There should be different levels of protection for different ages of children. It's absurd to think of a seventeen year old having access only to the information allowed to a five year old.

Hard rules on ages are dangerous and arbitrary.

Are there tools for the parents to use in restricting their children without imposing restrictions on anyone else?

That tool is already available. The parent standing there with the child.

And teaching them when they are not standing there how to think about, evaluate, and process the information they find.

TS asks if it is reasonable to expect a parent to be in the library at all times when a child could run into a pornographic image.

That's not what I said. Children should go out there capable of making decisions for themselves.

Is there really a problem with kids accessing pornographic pages?

We have not had problems at Cupertino.

At the Los Altos library I have seen high school age kids accessing pages they shouldn't be.

Kids, for time immemorial, have been accessing, and I can only go back to my own life experience. There is nothing old about this problem. The responsibility in my family was always assumed to be with the parents; they never expected anything to go on outside the home. We cannot look for solutions outside ourselves.

There is potential for this to be an inflammatory and divisive issue. People are alarmed when asked if children should be allowed to find pornography in the library. They do not like the idea of children twelve and younger seeing pornographic images, but they are less concerned if a seventeen year old is involved. So, the heart of the problem is in solving and reassuring without restricting.

TS asks, "why do you favor open access?"

Because not to favor open access gets very close to censorship.

Once you start down the path of censorship, there is no way for our society to know how or where to draw the line, and there should not be; it is not a governmental responsibility.

No one wants to know who the information regulators are.

More dangerous than pornography is the possibility of finding out information on how to construct weapons or grow drugs like angel dust.

The kids have access to the Internet at places other than the library, such as friends' houses--they have access everywhere.

The library, like other places kids frequent, is not their for day care. You cannot just stop everything.

Obscenity is not protected speech. If there is a way we can get rid of it on the Internet, we can avoid the slippery slope problem, but we cannot attack that kind of speech without hurting all kinds of other speech. There is no way to block pornography without blocking all these other things that are productive.

TS asks if everyone has seen the kinds of pornographic images that have been bothering people.

Never. I guess it's because I don't go look for them, but at the same time it is very difficult to access those images.

TS offers a binder full of the images and mentions the fact that many people stumble upon the pages without looking very much.

I think people should look at the images because sometimes when I talk to people I feel like they don't know what is out there.

TS asks if anyone present has had an opportunity to experiment with software filters.


(Tape turns here)

Even companies like Surfwatch use a subjective criteria for selecting sites.

It is a First Amendment issue. I also look at it as a back and fron- end issue. The back end is you teach your kids responsibility, you put these things in context, so that when they go out there they don't get blown away by this stuff. Instead of trying to deal with it out there, deal with it back here.

TS asks about protecting the children who do not get the needed guidance from responsible parents.

That's the problem with a free society. Sometimes it just does not work for everybody, but that is the problem with a free society. That's the downside.

TS explains that most people agree that the parents must have the primary responsibility, but there is disagreement in determining how much responsibility can and should be handed over to the library.

Both the city and the county libraries have been very clear about how much responsibility they have, which is none.

TS asks, "do you agree with that?"

It's a problem. I understand what they are saying.

I think it's foolhardy to say that the library exercises no control. The library, up to the point of the Internet, exercised control every time they ordered a book and ordered a magazine; you cannot go in there and look at Hustler.

I listened to the arguments Monday night, got somewhat alarmed, and went to the Cupertino library last night. I sat down at the Internet as a brand new user, and in fifteen minutes I stumbled my way onto a site that someone had named. But when I went down to the children's section, there were twelve terminals, only three of which had graphics that hook up to the Internet, and all of those screens face the librarian's desk and are in the middle of the room. To me that is the library exercising discretion or practicality.

There are a lot of practical solutions that are reassuring which avoid the problem of filtering.

At a certain point in the children's lives they leave the children's section and go to the young adult section. You don't really see a lot of children running around in the young adult section, this is not to say that it cannot happen, but there is a certain amount of division at that point.

A library can be proactive in terms of providing things to do that are easy and fun for young kids, providing material that is interesting and educational, not leaving the kids to browse.

TS asks, "what do you feel is at stake for you individually in this solution?"

As a professional website content developer, who is designing material to sell merchandise and entertainment, I am trying to make sure I am providing entertaining material that is of value and fun to children.

I think it is a matter of personal choice. I want to choose what I should read, and I do not want my neighbors telling me or my kids what is appropriate.

For me it is a first amendment issue, pure and simple, and I do not want anyone getting close to touching my rights. That's fundamentally key and is the one thing we have in the U.S. that protects us.

The filters might distract me from doing research because of a word typed that relates to a subject that is banned. I do not want to worry about being prevented from using a site that may be perfectly innocent or useful to my health or welfare.

The word filters are not enough; they have not figured out a way to filter the graphic itself.

If the libraries implement filters on the computers to protect the children, those filters will also effect me unless I ask the librarian to enter a liberating code to take the filter off, and sometimes it is difficult to get a hold of the librarian.

I have always regarded the library as an absolutely wondrous place, and I would not like it to be degraded by this issue. I would rather see reassurances that do not go as far as the filters and limitations.

As a citizen, I do not want to see the closing of the minds of America. Because they are afraid of a small percentage of sights, it threatens a lot of other things. It lets the tale wag the dog. My children are not capable of protecting their First Amendment rights. It is my job to protect their rights and the rights that their children may have in the future. All of the ideas on the Internet should be allowed to have no more or less room than any other ideas.

Barry Stenger (BJS)--questions from the floor.

A set of the questions have to do with the who and the how of limiting access. Could you countenance the use of tools to be used to filter the information allowed to other children, the children of the people who do not agree with open access?

TS says the common ground is tax money.

BJS asks if it is known what the librarian's policies presently are.

Are we entering the area of pin numbers and bar codes?

If people would like their children to bring filters to the libraries, that seems fine by me.

I would love to see a way for different groups of people to use the library simultaneously, and one thing I have suggested is a button that regulates access to the entire web or just the greenlight sights.

The identification codes allow the responsibility to remain with the parent and the child, and not the library alone.

Is anyone opposed to the spending of tax money to implement that type of arrangement?

TS summarizes responses. It is fine for people personally to filter the information allowed to their children as long as the restrictions do not spill over without warrant into the lives of the other children who otherwise are allowed open access.

The administration of that becomes a nightmare.

I do not think I am infringing upon anyone's rights in asking for the Internet, a public institution, to remain completely open.

BJS--If one were to object that tax payers' money would be spent on the solution, namely, the purchasing of filters and the like, one could also object that tax payers' money is being spent for illegal material.

What illegal materials?

A certain part of the infrastructure of the Internet has federal government funding behind it.

It's an integrated whole; a filter is not, the Internet is, and you cannot just say I want to pay for eighty five percent of it.

TS asks how you answer the person who says, "I just want my child to be protected from pornographic materials in the library."

The children also could be traumatized when walking to the bathroom, accidentally glancing on the screen of someone else's computer. Why should that have to happen in the public library?

In that particular case, who defines what pornographic materials are?

Who protects the children on the street--on the public anything? It's public and if you don't like it don't go.

Use this as an opportunity to teach your children about what pornography is and why it should be considered reprehensible. These are acts of exploitation that should not be done to other people.

TS--The values that are at stake here are choice, freedom, responsibility, education.

The argument about incidentally seeing a pornographic image on a computer screen while walking to the bathroom is bankrupt because the proposed scenario is no more likely than a kid running into two children who have pulled out a pornographic magazine.

The library provides the Internet but they cannot decide what sites are called up.

BJS--Does the panel object to the child not being allowed into an "R"rated movie or to purchase Playboy in a store without the company of a parent. Is this censorship as well?

It's an erroneous argument. It sounds plausible but traffic, fire, prescription drugs, all kinds of things are bad, but those things are not regulated to the point that they have no exposure to them. You have to teach the children to some extent, for their own safety, that they have to look out for these things.

TS announces wish to switch the conversation. What is the library's position as the panel understands it?

The library does not want to be considered a day care, an organization obligated to look out for the children.

The library is not connected to the child protective services. It is an institution that provides information. That's it--that's their job.

If the libraries assume control over the filtering of the Internet, they must also assume all liability involving the use and effects of use of the Internet. Law suits concerning the first amendment, but also law suits concerning mistakes in the software will surely follow.

BJS--Should librarians become library police?


TS--Why not?

It's not their job.

The library is not around to help form the character and social education of the child. I don't want the library to do that on my behalf.

TS--If a librarian saw a burning box and noticed a child who was about to burn herself, we would expect the librarian to say something and help prevent the child from being harmed. How is this different?

Burning is obviously harmful.

If a child walks by a screen and is exposed to a screen containing pornography, what are they? Now tainted now for life? If they are, what are you as a parent going to do about it? Are you going to bring him back and have him cleansed. Everyone has a right to say what is good for their children, and that is their right to do that. I feel there is much less harm from accidental viewing than is commonly felt.

We have created some kind of a monster out of nothing. The same material, equally as graphic, exists in the literature in the library. Who are we kidding?

The thing that worries me is that there are parents who are concerned their children have been exposed to unfortunate things and the library does not care. These two things together can cause irreparable damage to our libraries.

The library has taken steps to ensure that the privacy of its patrons is reserved, and I see this sensitivity extended to all of the library's constituents. They are taking the common sense attitude automatically expected of an institution organized to provide the public with free reign over all available information..

TS--Are there a set of ethical standards common to the community that require a person to warn a child looking at a pornographic image of the potential for harm?

Even if there is, there is no way to apply the standard ethically to the screening of the Internet.

I don't believe there is a community standard. What you are going to do is impose the standard of either the most vocal minority or the most affluent minority. It's going to be done in accordance with how loud you scream and who has the most money.

It's also an instant law suit.

TS--The librarians say if they had unlimited space and money they would put every legal information source on the shelves. Do you see any problem with this?

No. That would be ideal.

BJS--The Internet goes beyond all of the law and makes everything, legal or not, available to the interested.

I think it's nice for me to have the ability to go in there and choose what I want to see.

TS--What does the other side want?

They don't want their kids to be harmed.

They think this is harmful and their children need to be protected.

Some of the people feel it is their responsibility to protect all children.

I perceive some of the people in this group as threatened by a change in society that is impossible to check. I see them as searching for a narrow enough focus to control in part what they cannot control entirely. The other part of the group I see as having a very specific religious mission, hoping to carry their cause to as many people as possible.

TS--What is the solution to this? Is filtering software the solution? Bar codes?

Bar codes are inevitable outgrowths. The people with the technology will be selling it. Educating our children remains the thorny question. We need to talk to our kids about the possibility for change in our society and the responsibility that comes along with it.

I have never seen a technical solution to a management problem, and this in a way is an attempt to apply a technical solution to a problem involving people. These types of solutions fall apart and never work. We do have to learn to live in an increasingly complex society. Imposing rules will not help us deal with our changing society.

TS--What if you took graphic access off of all the children's computers?

You would have a big loss.

From a technical standpoint, it's becoming too difficult to navigate websites based simply on words.

If you take the graphics away the words become more graphic.

The library ought to try the filters in the back room and let the library do simultaneous testing.

Do filters take too much out or not? Who is right?

I don't want us to assume we as adults do not assume our information needs are more important than that of the kids.

The library is doing enough. Educational presentations will help all of the confused or fearful parents who do not know a thing about the library come in and learn from the librarians. The libraries can offer public information seminars.

Is there a danger in this approach that we'll ultimately want to apply filters to everyone's access? We'll want to make the web as bland as television.

TS--What if the solution becomes filtering software on the computers used by children? What will you do then? What will you do with your children?

I would continue to teach my children about what is in the world. It doesn't stop, and the Internet is only one source of information coming into their lives. The additional technology will be available to the parents who remain concerned, and that is a perfectly acceptable solution. It also leaves the library open.

TS--What is the common ground between the two sides?

Both sides care about the kids.

Both recognize the potential of the Internet.

Both want to anoint the value of parental responsibility.

It's important to continue to have a dialogue.

We both feel we are the majority of the public.

We both agree that pornography is undesirable material.

TS--Drawing the meeting to a close, announces that many of same questions will be posed to the filtering software companies. There will be access to the public report. The report will include information on the impact of pornography on children, the implications of the supreme court decision, library policies that are going with open access, library policies in libraries with limited access, the history of how this issue has developed, a whole variety of things that will be useful information for the CAC and the JPA. We will also personally test the filters. Local librarians will also be contacted for answers to the same questions.

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